Shiur #23b: The Proper Amount of Torah Study

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #23b: The Proper Amount of Torah Study

 

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

These are the things that have no fixed amount: The corner of the field, the first fruits… and the study of Torah (talmud Torah).

(Pe'a 1:1)

 

 

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: "Even if one recites only Keriat Shema in the morning and the evening, he has fulfilled 'This book of the Torah must never depart from your mouth' (Yehoshua 1:8), but it is forbidden to teach this to the ignorant."  Rava said: "It is a mitzva to teach this to the ignorant."

(Menachot 99b)

 

The closing debate in Menachot raises an interesting educational question: is it preferable not to inform the masses about the ease with which one can technically fulfill the mitzva of Torah study, thereby encouraging them to learn more than is required?  Or is it better to teach them the minimum requirement, in the hope that this will encourage them to begin the endeavor with small steps and to grow from there?

 

            In the continuation of this gemara, Rabbi Yishma'el seems to take the position that a person should be learning Torah all day.  The ambiguity about how demanding the obligation of talmud Torah is emerges from the mishna in Pe'a as well: what does it mean that this mitzva has no fixed amount?  The Tiferet Yisra'el and others explain that neither a minimum nor a maximum exists.  On the one hand, if one recites just the Shema, already obligatory on its own merit, one has fulfilled the mitzva; on the other hand, the more a person learns, the better.

 

            Rabbi Mei'ir Simcha of Dvinsk offers an insightful explanation for this flexibility in his Or Samei'ach (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:2).  He explains that the mitzvot are meant to be, for the most part, equally binding on all Jews.  This universalizing quality of mitzvot conveys the idea that Judaism is not reserved for a small elite; rather, it applies equally to all.  Thus, every Jew has the same obligation to eat matza on Pesach or to make Kiddush on Shabbat.  However, the extent to which some Jewish ideals should be applied depends a great deal upon the person being commanded.  For example, the Torah does not give precise guidelines with regard to character traits, such as pride or anger, because the proper amount of these traits depends a great deal on the person and his or her context.  When it comes to such subjective mitzvot, the Torah does not explicate all the variables; instead, it offers a baseline obligation that applies to each and every Jew.

 

            According to Rabbi Mei'ir Simcha, the study of the Torah is just such a mitzva.  It depends a great deal on certain factors, such as whether one already supports a family, one's intellectual abilities and one's ability to concentrate diligently.  Therefore, the Torah demands just a modicum of learning each morning and each evening as a minimum obligation for all.  Of course, each individual should challenge himself or herself to learn more, to the best of their capability.

 

            I would also add that the desired amount of Torah study not only varies from person to person but also from stage to stage in a person's life.  When a person works long hours and comes home to take care of children, a relatively short dose of daily learning is heroic and impressive.  When a person studies in yeshiva, the goal becomes nothing less than a full day.  May we succeed at reaching our learning potential and understand the varying energies to invest in talmud Torah at the different stages in our life.